IREX DR800SG e-reader: IREX loses, Barnes & Noble wins [first impressions]

I've got a sinking feeling about IREX's new DR800SG e-book reader. I saw the device in person this week at its launch event in New York, and I've got to say, it came off to me like the perfected version of a flawed device.

I've got a sinking feeling about IREX's new DR800SG e-book reader.

I saw the device in person this week at its launch event in New York, and I've got to say, it came off to me like the perfected version of a flawed device.

The e-reader, in its current form, is pretty much a one-trick pony that is so limited by its core technology that there is little to differentiate models from their competitors. So for now, the little things count: how intuitive the interface and design is; how customizable it can be, how easy it is to move content, how affordable it is.

With the IREX device, all I see is how easy it is to buy it.

That's because IREX managed to strike deals with Best Buy to sell the hardware, Barnes & Noble to offer content and Verizon Wireless to transmit it worldwide. While that's a cunning bit of corporate maneuvering, there's one big problem: the device isn't very engaging.

That's not to say the Sony-like device isn't technically proficient. A lot of what CEO Hans Brons said at the launch event was indicative of how knowledgeable his company is at making the hardware. Brons mentioned that his company was experimenting with moving the touch portion of the display underneath (or was it on top of?) the e-Ink portion, in part to avoid a glossy finish, in part to achieve true "touch" technology (the device introduced was intended to be primarily used with a stylus, and seemed a little lost with fingers).

He also mentioned that his company will have vivid color e-Ink displays by 2011 -- the first such concrete declaration by any e-reader manufacturer -- but it's unclear whether that's because of an advancement by e-Ink or itself.

And I very much appreciated the company's goal to approach the device in a "minimalist" way, doing away with excess features and attempting technical excellence at one thing: e-reader.

The problem is, I'm not buying it for $399.

But it's not just the painful price point. It's also the slightly wider form factor, which is easier to hold but slightly harder to read (shorter lines are easier to read -- that's why newspapers are written in columns) and store. The buttons didn't seem intuitive in a page-turning way, either.

(Should an e-book reader need to resemble a book? I don't have an answer, but it's easy to say that the paperback book is a proven form factor.)

Further, the "touchscreen" on this device just isn't compelling. A stylus seems to me to be another thing to lose in transit, and it occurs to me that I'd rather have full (finger) touch capacity -- or none at all.

And I certainly wouldn't want to pay a premium to go halfway.

Don't get me wrong: I do think the multiple methods of connectivity -- Wi-Fi and Verizon 3G -- are useful. And I do believe that IREX is quite serious about making an excellent, refined e-reader.

And above all, IREX's entry into the field marks a step toward maturation and the first play by Verizon in this space.

But there was nothing about the IREX e-reader in person that said "wow." And for $400, I'd want a little "wow" to go with a grayscale device.

Come to think of it, the real winner seems to be Barnes & Noble. When it first announced a partnership with Plastic Logic, many thought the company was putting all its chips in with one vendor. But now that B&N has IREX, too, it's clear that B&N is ensuring that it will sell many e-books to many customers, regardless of the device.

That's a smart move: to outsource the hardware and sell the service.

Not only does that shield B&N from failure -- if IREX's device arrives on shelves D.O.A., a better one will take its place -- but it removes B&N from a business it (and Amazon) do not really know much about: hardware.

If the woefully-named IREX DR800SG is a Kindle-killing success, both IREX and B&N will win. If not, B&N still wins.

Game on, Amazon.